A conscious muddle

Engineers may have a lot to learn from philosophers about intelligence.

Professor Emeritus Lynn Trainor, a long-time member of the physics department at the University of Toronto who died earlier this year, is reported as saying: "What fascinates me is this. The egg gets fertilised. The cells start dividing. And then consciousness arises out of it. How?"

In his book 'The Mysterious Flame', British philosopher Colin McGinn argues that the emergence of consciousness in the physical brain is a mystery that we will never unravel. Could he be mistaken?

In 'Evolution and Consciousness', Canadian philosopher Leslie Dewart asserts that speech generates consciousness in the race and in every new member of the race.

To examine this possibility, we need to differentiate between communication, speech and language.

In her book 'The First Word', Christine Kenneally does a survey of the unsuccessful quests by linguists for the origin of language. But, maybe, linguists are the wrong people looking for the wrong thing? The bodily act of speech long precedes all language, reading, writing, Braille, sign language and all speech substitutes.

I listened to a University of Toronto professor speaking about age-related changes in hearing. He referred to the resulting difficulties in language comprehension. But we do not hear language; we hear speech. He went on to refer to "spoken language". He was referring to the act of speech. Even worse, the BBC reported a Lancaster University study of 120 toddlers which found that the ability to perform complex mouth movements was strongly linked to language development. Aren't complex mouth movements linked to the development of speech?

Even neurologists are misled when they refer to language centres in the brain. Sufferers of a debilitating stroke soon know that it is the speech centre in the brain that has been affected, regardless of the language previously spoken. As Thomas Hobbes writes in 'Of Man': "The most noble and most profitable invention of all other, was that of Speech." He was not confused by the red herring of language.

The distinction between speech and language is beauti-fully illustrated in the biblical story of the tower of Babel. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us: "And the Lord said, "Behold they are one people and they have all one language; Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech [my italics]"."

I am not surprised at the confusion between speech and language. Rather than search fruitlessly for the origin of the latter, we can realistically reconstruct the emergence of speech. If anyone should object that this happened in prehistoric times, let me remind them that Darwin successfully recon-structed the origin of species that took place over billions of years. The emergence of speech is recent by comparison.

In the beginning

The day was bright and sunny. In my mind's eye I saw upright creatures walk through the tall grasses in a clearing of the African forest. They listened as wind stirred dusty scrub, greenish grasses, many-coloured shrubs and nearby lofty trees. But they could not name them as grass, shrubs or trees. As the group strolled, they heard the faintest rustle in the grass. The ape-like figures stopped in their tracks - senses alert, hearts beating faster. The leader recognised the smell of snake, his amygdala instinc-tively warned him, but he could name neither snake nor odour. He could image the hidden thing but could not name it. He could name neither self nor the other.

I could see these were highly intelligent creatures. They were informed of the security and hazards of the world by means of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. They communicated by means of body gestures using arms, legs, torso, head, eyes, and voiced sounds - all triggered by their senses.

Communication produced results. It promoted the survival of individuals. The infant offspring of these creatures instinctively suckled, grasped and clung to their mother. Immediate survival skills were built into their nervous system. The newborn had much to learn but they did not have to repeat the entire trial-and-error process of the species. Parents taught life-preserving skills handed down through the generations. But revolutionary new skills were emerging.

Under the influence of natural selection, the cerebral cortex of our ancestors slowly grew and, little by little, their communication skills improved. Then, a small but significant change occurred. A descendant of the ape-like creatures stood listening to the sounds of the forest. Gradually, she became aware of one sound that was different. She experimented, called out, listened carefully and, to her surprise, recognised her own voiced sounds among the myriad of the forest.

Her descendants became even more skilled. They not only recognised their own sounds but discovered that these produced results. As this knowledge spread in the species and passed down through the generations, individuals were no longer limited to making instinctive sounds - they could now deliberately voice them to produce desired results.

This was the beginning of the bodily act of speech. Our ancestors could now assert their wishes, their desires.

They became capable of both instinctive and assertive communication. When their senses produced sudden fear, their response was to flinch, gasp, cry out. This reaction was purely instinctive - it did not lie. If, on the other hand, they deliberately made a signal by word or gesture, this signal was assertive rather than instinctive communication. They could now point in the wrong direction or provide wrong answers. Speech became the most significant means of assertion and could be used to inform or misinform.

In time, our ancestors learned to string words together and make assertions about experienced objects and events. They could now say "Lion, fierce"; "Baby, hungry"; or "Wind, chilly."

Our ancestors could now not only talk to others, they could also talk to themselves. They learned to soundlessly move lips and unseen vocal chords. With practice, they learned to talk silently in their heads. Without losing their unworded instinctive ability to image, recognise or react, they added a new skill to their repertoire. By thinking, speaking silently in their head, they could rehearse what they would say aloud. They could plan to explain, to be evasive, to be truthful or to lie.

As their vocabulary grew, they could speak and think of the self and the other with increasing clarity. I listened as the late Northrop Frye remarked that his students did not have great thoughts waiting for words with which to express them; their thoughts were limited by their vocabulary.


Can it be that Trainor, McGinn, and a host of others are mistaken in their view that consciousness is a mystery we will never resolve? The common viewpoint seems to be that consciousness mysteriously emerges; we begin to experience consciously, have conscious thoughts, and use language to communicate these thoughts.

Dewart reverses this sequence. He proposes that consciousness does not evolve in the same way as arms and legs, eyes or the brain. The child's ability to experience as a human is inextricably bound up with learning from others how to speak. Imagine a group of children who since birth have been isolated from humans. They may learn to make sounds, but without repeating the entire process of cultural evolution they would be unable to compose even elementary sentences. And without even the names of objects, what would there be to talk about?

The evolution of speech in the race was a long and gradual process and would be an equally long and gradual process in children cut off from their cultural inheritance. If the newborn child is cut off from the speech of others, he or she will not learn to speak or think. In short, the young child slowly learns to imitate the speech of others and, by naming things in speech and thought, begins to distinguish between self and the other. This is what child psychologists call individuation and philosophers - consciousness.

Philosopher John Locke defined consciousness as "the perception of what passes in a man's own mind", but this definition has not removed the confusion surrounding the nature of consciousness.

In 'Are We Unique?', James Trefil relates that he was part of a multidisciplinary group formed to discuss the problems of consciousness and complex adaptive computer systems.

After two hours of heated discussion, this group of academics could not agree on a definition of the word brain, let alone consciousness. I am not surprised. The increased specialisation and departmentalisation of knowledge creates barriers to a fuller understanding of our place in the world.

Freud pointed out that humans experience both consciously and unconsciously. By a little introspection, we can differentiate between conscious and unconscious experiencing. As I came home on the subway from the University of Toronto, I read my notes and thought silently in unvoiced words. I boarded the train at Bloor Street and was so intent on my thoughts that I have no recoll-ection of the train stopping at Rosedale or Summerhill. I did not consciously experience these stops and starts. But I must, nevertheless, have experienced the train decelerating and accelerating. After all, I did not fall, stumble, or bump into other passengers. I must unconsciously have braced and balanced myself. But I did not experience the experiencing.

As a result I know that humans are capable of experiencing in two quite different ways that we call conscious and unconscious.

Consciousness is the ability to distinguish between self and the other than self - to experience myself looking out at the world. The explanation is that consciousness is a function of speech that in turn is a function of the cerebral cortex.

Consciousness is a function of a function. This explains why all searches in the organism of the brain for the origin of consciousness have failed. Chemistry, physiology and neurology have not revealed the mystery.

Computers do wonderful things quicker and more accurately than humans, but the intelligence involved is in the programmer and the end-user.

Whatever computers do, they do it without understanding the meaning of the words or numbers they process. Far from showing signs of intelligence or being capable of consciousness, computers are not even alive.

 Like Trainor's multi-disciplinary group, engineers in the field of artificial intelligence could benefit from grounding in philosophy. But even there muddle still abounds.

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